Belarus probes opposition figures over riots

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Belarus has opened criminal probes against 18 leading opposition figures over involvement in post-election riots that could see them jailed for up to 15 years, a rights group said Wednesday.

The figures named in the probes include a vast swathe of the country's opposition and liberal media elite who now face the prospect of several years behind bars.

Amid a growing international outcry over the crackdown, Germany said it had summoned Minsk's ambassador to express its concerns and warned that Belarus faced "isolation."

Belarus has said it arrested over 600 people in the wake of Sunday's protests against authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko's re-election in polls international observers said fell well short of democratic standards.

The 18 are suspected of organising "mass disturbances" leading to violence, damage and resistance against the security services, the Vesna (Spring) rights group said.

If found guilty, they risk jail terms of between five to 15 years.

Those suspected include the most prominent opposition candidates in the elections -- former deputy foreign minister and founder of the news site Andrei Sannikov and the poet Vladimir Nekliayev, it said.

Four other candidates -- Rygor Kostusev, Vitaly Rymashevsky, Dmitry Uss, and Nikolai Statkevich -- are also listed as suspects.

Statkevich and head of oppositional United Civic Party Anatoly Lebedko has announced a hunger strike, Belarussian media reported Wednesday.

Belarus earlier has threatened to shut down Lebedko's party, which backed candidate Yaroslav Romanchuk, as well as the party of Rygor Kostusev.

Meanwhile, the list includes some of the most prominent journalists in the country, such as Irina Khalip, who writes for the Russian Novaya Gazeta newspaper and is Sannikov's wife and Natalya Radina who is an editor of Charter97.

All but Kostusev, who has been freed after brief detention but is still being questioned, are still behind bars. The Belarus authorities have yet to confirm they have been formally made suspects.

Vesna's own office was raided at 3:00 am on Monday by KGB officers in civilian clothing, who took computers, memory sticks, and video equipment, the group said. Ten employees were detained.

Of the 600 people sentenced on administrative charges, many may still face additional criminal charges, spokesman for the Minsk police told reporters Wednesday.

In a sign that the crackdown against protestors is not over, Belarussian Interior Minister Anatoly Kuleshov said that his ministry will identify and punish all participants in the rally on December 19th.

"We did not detain everyone, but each of those riot participants that fled from the Independence Square will be identified, and charged. No one will escape punishment," Kuleshov said, Interfax reported.

Lukashenko, once branded Europe's last dictator by Washington, vowed after the elections that he would come down hard on those behind the protestors warning the opposition they were "messing with the wrong guy".

The Belarussian central election committee will announce final results of the presidential elections on December 24th, committee secretary Nikolai Lozovik told Belarussian news agency Belta.

Lukashenko was re-elected to a fourth term with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

"The Belarus leadership is pushing its own country into isolation with its behaviour. This undemocratic, backward-looking course harms most of all the people in Belarus," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement.

"A country where elections are rigged and people are locked up en masse ... is not a suitable partner for the European Union," added the minister.

© 2010 AFP

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